To Enjoy Nature, Look For Trash

I recently took my preschoolers to the beach for some spring break R&R. While I attempted to keep seashells out of my toddler’s mouth, I noticed something shiny in the sand, not too far away from my baby’s foot. I leaned over to get a closer look at it — and discovered it was broken glass.

I stopped cold. Oh geez, how much broken glass is there?

I looked looked around the sand in our immediate vicinity and noticed several more fragments, and then, luckily, nothing more.

I contemplated leaving the beach. After all, was it still safe to play there? Ultimately, I decided that this would probably be the first of many times we would encounter broken glass outside. So, I decided to educate my preschoolers on what broken glass looks like so that they could avoid it when they play outside. I pointed to the swath of beach where they could not play because trash had broken into sharp fragments that could send us to urgent care if stepped on (thus immediately ending our play). My preschoolers eagerly nodded their heads as they peered at the shards and then went to another area to play.

Still, I was bothered. After thinking about it for a few more minutes, I realized why:

My children’s experiences in nature now had to revolve around nature and trash.

My preschoolers couldn’t just frolic in slightly stinky mud at low tide. Or throw themselves into the sand with reckless abandon and make sand angels when the desire hit them.

Now, when my kids go into nature, they have to look for trash; they can enjoy nature only after they focus on what isn’t nature or natural – trash.

Here’s how I see this playing out in my children’s minds:

“Oh, What a beautiful beach! The sun feels so warm on my skin; a soft breeze is gently blowing my hair, and the sand is nice and wa- oh wait, I need to look for glass. Let me look for it. Okay no glass. I can step here. And I can step there. Can I also dig in the mud here? Is there glass under the sand that I cannot see? What about in the water? Can I play there?

As I faced this sad reality, I looked around and noticed there were only 4 other kids on the beach. This was surprising given that it was spring break week. Could it be that everyone is on vacation somewhere else? Or, is it just that everyone is inside?

I thought about my day, and how I often spend most of it inside: inside houses, cars, busses, offices, and schools. These indoor environments are nicely surrounded by an outdoor environment that is also not really outdoors; rather than trees, dirt, and grass, it is covered with asphalt parking lots and roads and concrete walkways and fountains (if we are lucky).

Could it be that we are spending so much time out side of nature that we have forgotten how to take care of it?

I began to wonder if being inside so much has caused us to forget about how our actions impact the world we live in.

I’d like to think the broken glass ended up on the beach by accident. I tell myself the bottles it came from were put into a recycling bin by someone who meant well. Somehow it just fell out into the water and ended up broken on the beach.

At least, I sort of hope that. Because if that is true, it means that people are not purposely littering our beaches. But, if it is true, it means that more trash – so much more trash – is ending up in our environment despite our honest efforts to recycle it.

As I sit with my kids and eat our picnic lunch by the shore, I look around and – as if for the first time – notice all the trash surrounding the beach. It was already there, but now I can see it so much more clearly: There is a protein bar wrapper stuck in a blossoming weed growing by the edge of the sand. There is a plastic cup lid left next to the trash can – could it have flown out of there? Not too far away are the remnants of a clear wrapper – maybe from a juice box, a broken straw, a used napkin…

The more I look, the more trash I see. And I begin to wonder how much trash is on our beaches. By city standards, this is a clean beach. But really, it isn’t.

Maybe that’s why no one is here?

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